Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: SUNSHINE CLEANING

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Aug 24, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Sunshine Cleaning (Blu-ray)

    Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 91 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; Spanish DD 2.0
    Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $39.98
    Disc Format: 1 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 13, 2009
    Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 25, 2009


    Although it shares producers, a word in the title, Sundance acclaim and co-star Alan Arkin with Little Miss Sunshine – and the PR flacks did everything they could to stress the connection – Sunshine Cleaning is a different kind of movie. For one thing, it’s not an ensemble film; it rests on the shoulders and considerable talent of its star, Amy Adams (who made this film before both Doubt and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, although both were released in theaters first). For another, although Sunshine Cleaning has its share of funny moments, it isn’t primarily a comedy – and again, the PR folk did it no favors by trying to make it look like one. Instead, the film is a rich and insightful character study that travels a unique path by exploring a line of work that, to my knowledge, had never before been used in a film plot.

    The Feature:

    Rose Lorkowski (Adams) is stuck in a dead-end life. In high school, she was the head cheerleader and dated the quarterback. Now she’s a single mom with an eight-year-old son named Oscar (Jason Spevack, cast on the basis of one scene in Hollywoodland) who has discipline problems at school, and she scrapes by working as house cleaner, sometimes for women who used to be her classmates.

    Rose’s family isn’t much help. Her father, Joe (Arkin), is a fly-by-night salesman, who barely keeps his own head above water. Her younger sister, Norah (a brilliant Emily Blunt, cast before Devil Wears Prada made her famous), still lives with her father, loves to play the rebel and can’t hold onto a job. Their mother isn’t in the picture, nor is Oscar’s father, who is never identified (though his identity is strongly suggested).

    But then Rose gets a money-making idea from Mac (Steve Zahn), the cop who regularly beds her at a local Albuquerque motel. Mac tells her about the big fees collected by crews who specialize in cleaning up deaths, especially the messy ones resulting from violence, like the public suicide he recently handled (it’s the film’s opening scene). Rose is reluctant at first, but when she decides that Oscar needs private school, Rose plunges in, drafting Norah as her assistant and naming their company “Sunshine Cleaning”. They buy their van from a salesman pal of daddy Joe, played by that fine old character actor Paul Dooley, familiar from so many roles, including John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles.

    Rose and Norah barely survive their first few jobs, which, with various accumulations and splatters of body fluids and other contaminated and foul-smelling matter, explore new dimensions in gross-out humor. They also break numerous environmental laws, something that they don’t even realize until they overhear a competitor complaining to the proprietor of a cleaning supply store about the untrained amateurs poaching his business. The proprietor, Winston (a nicely understated Clifton Collins Jr.), spots Rose and Norah as beginners and takes pity on them (and, in Rose’s case, maybe something more). He loans them a set of the applicable laws and regulations and offers to help Rose enroll in a course for certification in BBP handling (that’s “blood-borne pathogens” to you and me). Little by little, the Lorkowski sisters master their new trade, build a reputation and start to expand their business. It’s all going so well. And then . . .

    It took me two viewings of Sunshine Cleaning to realize that the film’s story has two levels. The first is the introduction to this bizarre and somewhat morbid industry with which most of us have even less familiarity than we do with the world of funeral homes explored in Six Feet Under. That was the marketing hook, and having seen the trailer maybe a dozen times, I expected it to be the film’s primary focus. It isn’t. In between the nauseating locales that Rose and Norah have to sanitize, we get to know the Lorkowski family intimately, and this is where the film’s second level and true story lies.

    In unexpected ways, Rose’s founding of this new enterprise proves to be the catalyst for a complete reevaluation of her life, including, among other things, her longstanding relationship with Mac. She’s spent most of her adult life feeling that she wasn’t good enough: inadequate as a mother, unworthy of a husband, a failure compared to her peers. There are reasons why Rose has turned out this way, and they gradually come into focus as the film progresses. It does not push the metaphor too far to say that Rose’s life needs a cleanout just as badly as the scenes she’s called to. The question is whether she can learn how to do it. Amy Adams has given us many fine screen performances, but none better than Rose Lorkowski, whose rapidly shifting thoughts and feelings shine through in the smallest gesture of Adams’s performance.

    Similar issues face both Norah and, to a lesser extent, Joe. Norah finds herself tracking down and befriending the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub, forever Chloe from 24) of a deceased shut-in whose filthy apartment she and Rose cleaned. Norah can’t articulate why this quest is so important to her, and Emily Blunt paints a masterful portrait of a young woman whose life has been driven by such barely understood impulses.

    As for Joe, well . . . that gets into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that the Lorkowskis, like many families, have matters about which they cannot and do not speak but which are part of the very fiber of their being. There are no melodramatic confrontations or revelations in Sunshine Cleaning, and no magical cures. But people do make decisions and move on. At the end of the film, one character is at the wheel of a car heading out onto the open road. Even today, that image is still a powerful American symbol of hope.


    The 2.40:1 image is pristine and detailed. The film was shot almost entirely on location, and you can tell that the indoor scenes are real and not sets. The scenes of mayhem, death and decay that Rose and Norah visit are captured in stomach-turning detail, but they’re counterpointed by the gorgeous shots of the beautiful New Mexico sky (the commentary notes DP John Toon’s fondness for what they call “horizontal shots”). The film’s editing frequently juxtaposes a dark interior shot with a bright outdoor one, and the transfer handles these abrupt transitions without any smearing or loss of detail. I really couldn’t find any fault with this transfer.


    The Dolby TrueHD track provides a nice sense of environment and an occasional directional effect, such as a car passing. Dialogue is well-rendered and natural-sounding. Michael Penn’s multi-faceted score blends unobtrusively but effectively into the soundtrack. I saw the film in a good first-run theater, but this TrueHD soundtrack is a substantial improvement in detail and musicality.

    Special Features:

    Commentary by writer Morgan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson. Williamson talks more than Holley, because he has more knowledge of the production history. The track is loaded with relevant information about the history of the production, casting, choice of locations (the script was rewritten numerous times for various cities), the shooting process and especially the editing process. Indeed, Williamson and Holley both refer to so many deleted and alternate versions of scenes that it made me wish for their inclusion. I’d especially like to see the improvs between Alan Arkin and Paul Dooley, who, like their characters, have known each other for years and just started insulting each other on camera.

    Sunshine Cleaning: A Fresh Look at a Dirty Business” (11:17). An unusual and interesting special feature, this is an interview with two women who run the exact type of business that the Lorkowski sisters are trying to establish. They talk about some of their experiences on the job, demonstrate certain equipment and give their reaction to the portrayal of their trade in the film. One scene, where Rose and Norah arrive at the site of a car accident, is described as being so close to one of their experiences that it’s as if the film crew had followed them on the job. One cannot help but be impressed at the compassionate professionalism of these two individuals.

    Trailers. The film’s trailer is available as a separate special feature. Also available on the special features menu are trailers for Henry Poole Is Here, The Visitor and Sleepwalking. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Paper Heart, Last Chance Harvey and the Starz series Crash; these can be skipped with the chapter forward button.

    BD-Live. The disc has a BD-Live option. As of this writing, Anchor Bay’s BD-Live site appears to be still under construction. Its only offering is various trailers, many of which are already on the disc.

    In Conclusion:

    Off-beat, creative films like Sunshine Cleaning are increasingly at risk in today’s environment, where studios have substantially cut back their commitment to smaller films, and many have simply folded their “independent” divisions altogether. Starz, through its Overture distribution unit and Anchor Bay video, deserves a lot of credit for continuing to take risks on such films. (In the case of Sunshine Cleaning, the risk paid off with a domestic box office exceeding $12 million.) They’ve now delivered a first-rate Blu-ray, which, even if it doesn’t have every extra one might have wished, presents the film as well as you could have seen it in the theater.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    Velodyne HGS-10 sub
  2. Cameron Yee

    Cameron Yee Executive Producer

    May 9, 2002
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    Since 2006
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    Cameron Yee
    Thanks for the fine review. I wasn't sure what to bump up on my Netflix Q and this film sounds like just the ticket!
  3. Ron-P

    Ron-P Producer

    Jul 25, 2000
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    Put this at the top of my Blockbuster Q, it should be here in a couple of days and I look very forward to it.
  4. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator

    Oct 9, 2001
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    Rensselaer, NY
    Originally Posted by Ron-P

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